Zoltán Balog has been heading the Ministry of Human Resources since 2012, he has been one of the main facilitators of German-Hungarian relations, he is a Protestant pastor and an expert on the Roma-integration topic – all of which he discusses here.
Why did you change the name of the ministry?
When I was appointed minister in 2012, I had the name changed from Ministry of National Resources to Ministry of Human Resources. The emphasis on the human factor is very important for me, not only in the sense of human resources but also in the sense that a human approach is applied towards problems
Your ministry is a considerable size.
Yes, almost 3000 employees. The former background institutions have been integrated into the ministry step by step, such as part of the health and pension insurance system and some of the research institutions as well. In terms of administration this is a huge challenge. However, it’s worth the effort, since new workflows and new levels of co-operation are arising from it. The areas belonging to my ministry, including among others health-care, education, family and social affairs, not only have their strong dynamics but also quite clear outlines that separate them from the other areas. It was a difficult task to break these a little bit in order to build synergies but we have made a lot of progress. Many specific projects prove that our holistic approach was successful. Projects can be implemented much better this way than if the family, education and social ministry would be totally separated units.
How do you manage to have a complete overview of your huge ministry?
I don’t want to sound arrogant but in principle I have a similar role as the Prime Minister in regards to his government. I need to know about my areas just as much as he needs to know about his. The daily work takes place at the level of the state secretaries. My responsibility is selecting the right state secretaries and letting them work, and then asking them for the relevant information so that I am always aware of current matters and can be questioned both by the government and by the public. In addition I have co-ordinating work to do. This is why I am managing many professional discussions with the state secretaries and under-secretaries. Once I have received information about a problem and we have discussed the possible solutions, I am turning to the next problem.
Are there areas you are dedicating special attention to?
This depends partly on the performance of the state secretariats. I consciously do not want to name any specific areas now, in order not to publicly criticise my state secretariats. We should do that internally at the end of the legislation period. However, there are topics of course that have been very close to my heart for years, for example Roma integration. In this context the holistic approach of my ministry is also very beneficial, by the way. Almost all the state secretariats are impacted by this topic.
The opposition is constantly criticising the health-care situation. Are they right?
This area needs constant attention, since health-care is an area that constantly changes. Although we are spending several hundred million forints more than theprevious government, the structure still needs to be improved. Health-care is a huge business for some actors, while it concerns the innermost affairs of a person. This is why it’s a very sensitive and difficult topic. It’s about making economically feasible solutions without sacrificing people’s health. If it was for the pharmaceutical industry to decide, we could spend a lot more for health-care. But that would not automatically mean that this would make health-care that much better. Compromises always have to be made. We took over the responsibility for the health-care system from the municipalities. Now everything is in central government ownership. Now we have to make the next move: we need to build regional centres that manage the budgets and capacities of the hospitals among other things.
I am really proud that we are the first country in Europe where the government managed working together with experts to be able to measure the current status of the Roma population in a way that no privacy regulations or personality rights were violated. Our method, which was praised by the European Commission as well, allows us to get a very specific picture about the situation of the Roma population. We can then compare this present status with the former situation. This is a stable solution to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts. Of course, the data from the Central Statistical Office also gives us some points of reference. According to them, the poverty rate of the Roma population decreased significantly in the last six years. The upper class of Roma were able to work their way up to lower middle-class. More Roma managed to do that than in our neighbour countries.
How was that possible?
Among other things, thanks to our employment policy. There is another point I am very proud of: the number of young Roma studying at universities has doubled. We are talking about several thousand youngsters here. Six-seven years ago we started a co-operation together with the Church to establish a boarding school system. This initiative is bringing its first fruits now. It’s very important to build an educated Roma community here, who are interested in the co-operation with other people and not confrontation.
What else still needs to be worked on?
We need to do something against the tendency that more and more Roma children are leaving high school without a graduation exam. This is a negative development. The same thing is true for vocational education. The number of early pregnancies has also increased among Roma people.
What could be the reason for these two negative tendencies?
In my opinion, the public employment programs are a bit too tempting. People can already participate from 16 years of age. If someone is already a father, he has a right to participate in it. This way he gets HUF 58,000 a month, while at the school he would only get HUF 20,000 as a scholarship. It’s not surprising that some Roma parents get the idea: “Boy, why are you still at school?” We still have to work on changing this disproportionate pricing. We need to ensure that young people enter the labour market with a valuable education.
What are your plans in this area?
It’s one of my big dreams to create a really elegant, beautiful and impressive Cultural and Education Centre for the Roma. I just got a large step closer to this dream: at the end of last year during the distribution of the budget overhead this goal received more than one billion forint from the Prime Minister. The plans for the centre are already completed. It will be built in Budapest’s District VIII, where the largest population of Roma lives. In Europe the only place with something similar is Madrid. I would like to present all the positive things in the centre that were established in Hungary thanks to the Roma culture and not only Hungarian “gypsy music”. The president of the German Sinti and Roma Central Council, Romani Rose, once said Hungarian Roma were the ones with the strongest cultural power of expression in all Europe. I am very proud about this evaluation. This is exactly what we want to present at the centre now, both for ourselves and for the outsiders. It’s necessary for Roma people, in order to value themselves and to be able to integrate into our society, to see what they can be proud about. They have a special culture. This is a very positive thing for them. On the other hand, the non-Roma need to recognise better that Roma are not only causing a problem for society, they can be an enrichment too. I hope that the construction works will be finished in 2018 and that the centre can be opened in 2019.
What about these relations?
I am biased. I have a lot to thank to Germany, and many Germans ranging all through the party spectrum ever since my studies in Germany. I will never forget that. Therefore I will always be striving for strengthening these relations. However, I have to say that the climate of conversation, which used to be excellent back at the times of Helmut Kohl, changed a little bit. The smaller European countries, such as we are, are not taken so seriously anymore. At the beginning of the nineties, I can still remember very well Helmut Kohl followed a policy of eye-level. No matter how small the other country was, he was always communicating at eye-level and treated the other one as an equal partner. In the past few years on the other hand we have witnessed some decisions where we were not involved. I know that very well, since I am aware of every important negotiation that takes place between German and Hungarian politicians. The new way of handling became especially apparent during the migrant crisis. Germans should have sought out much more information and much faster about what was happening at the Hungarian borders and what our point of view was. We have offered to give that information several times. To express it in a polite way: we did not really experience that they were ready to discuss matters as we would have wished for it. Some German politicians were and are living very well with their own prejudices against Hungary.
Despite all that, everything seems to be calmer than in 2011.
The European Commission has examined us in all respects, regarding the rule of law, our new constitution and the media law as well, and found that everything was Euro-conform. Except for only some small details in the media law, which we have changed without a delay. I don’t know whether there is any other country in Europe where the whole legal system and the whole functioning of the system of law was examined so intensively. In any case, we passed the exams. So now we can step forward and say: “People, what’s your problem with Hungary?” All the rest is just artificially created tension by the media, in order to keep up Hungary’s negative image and the negative prejudices about the Orbán government, which some political circles are interested in preserving. I hope that more and more Germans will understand: when we are protecting our borders, we are protecting yours as well.
What can be done for German-Hungarian relations so that there will be no decline?
The German investors who are active in Hungary are doing very well. The digitalisation strategy, on which we are working very closely together with German companies and the German development politicians, opens up new perspectives. Mr Oettinger emphasised several times: all the EU funds invested in Hungary and Poland are benefiting in majority to the German economy. The Hungarian employees just the same, who are employed by German companies here. The German-Hungarian economic relations are a solid foundation. Just like the cultural basis. If we lean on these two pillars, the actual differences in political opinions will be put in a perspective and negative deviations will be reduced. I also have strong hope in the young generation. There are some good initiatives, for example the German-Hungarian Youth Office. Many politicians from both countries and from all the parties support this initiative. There is a consensus on this issue. I hope that there are going to be more similar projects.
The most serious tensions between Germans and Hungarians are about the migration crisis. What perspectives do you foresee there?
We have to talk more openly with each other and discuss the issues. For example whether a possibly high cultural homogeneity in a society is something we should strive for, or just the opposite. The governments of the two countries represent clearly different opinions on this subject. But that does not have to mean that we cannot complement each other and accept the other one’s opinion. One of us decided for this way, the other one for a different way. Of course there is a lot more to talk about. There will still be a lot of discussions full of conflicts. These should be led primarily not only by politicians but also by cultural creators and philosophers. The educated class and the young people should have more conversation with each other.
What are the other topics you would like to discuss with German political parties?
Besides the already mentioned Roma policy, also our family policy, which is proving more and more successful. For example, the number of marriages increased by 50% in the last four years. In the eight years before that this number sank by almost 30%. So here we have also made huge progress. Our citizens have recognised that we are supporting families with generous offers in all the relevant fields. In terms of family benefits we belong in the top four in Europe. This is our answer to the demographic challenges that are troubling Germany just the same: renewal from own resources.
Parliamentary elections 2018
What are the chances your government can continue its work after the elections in 2018?
Chances are good. However, good chances can result in defeat too. When you look at France, at the United States or at Italy, you will see how fast an unstable political situation can arise. So we should always watch out. The permanent good scores in opinion polls should not make us lean back. After all, democracy has become a certain culture of dissatisfaction. The dissatisfied people always have better chances to enforce their will than those who would like to keep on building and make sure that citizens will be even more satisfied.
Why is it so hard to advertise yourself with the results you have already achieved?
Because it can be easily interpreted as self-praise. Even if the citizens are feeling the results. The critics, who believe that this or that is bad, always have better chances. This seems to be anchored deep in the nature of the democratic system. This is why we should be careful. We should work even more and show that we have not forgotten the people, who we represent. We need to show that we know how the everyday life in Hungary is and that we are not an uplifted elite, who are strongly controlled by their personal interests in how they govern. It’s very important that we should not only say this but prove it to the citizens with our work day after day. This should be an important guideline in our policy. If we do not succeed in doing that, there is a danger that we will be put in such a bad light that the people will say “No!” to us despite the positive situation.
So basically you are optimistic?
Yes, absolutely. I think that if we continue on this path as so far, then there is no better alternative for Hungary. I’m not saying that there are no alternatives, only that there is no better alternative. In 1998 MSZP led by Gyula Horn lost for among other reasons because they represented the viewpoint that there are no other alternatives. And even though Horn was practising a comparatively good policy. The Socialists today could learn a lot of things from Gyula Horn. By the end of his period he became a very wise father of the land. However, it was a big mistake to say that there was no other alternative to them. In life, and even in politics, there are always alternatives.
Among the present decision-makers there are a lot of idealists who are doing what they do because of the cause itself. However, there are also some people with somewhat different motivations. Could this group endanger the continuation of your constructive work from 2018 on?
I am not a romantic. I will not pretend as if I had no pockets. Even if you are a politician to the bottom of your heart you will have your own material interests, of course. There are people to whom politics is also a business. This does not mean that they don’t have valuable ideas. Looking back at our socialist past, when there was a general equality in wages, it’s easy to agitate against rich citizens, of course. However, if someone gets rich in a right way, within the legal boundaries and keeping the rules of the competition, then that is a positive thing. The fact that politics can be a business too is not a negative thing per se, I believe. However, it’s always important that the relevant businesses are running in a correct way. The fact that in the past years there was a layer of wealthy people established in Hungary is a positive thing. Of course, there is always the question of corruption that has to be examined. Especially when someone has been governing for such a long time. All the suspicious cases should be examined by the state authorities. If someone knows about something negative, it should be clarified in the legal way. There are indeed some proceedings going on against Fidesz politicians. However, the presumption of innocence should be applied in their cases as well. If the investigations carried out by the responsible judicial organisations confirm the suspicious circumstances, then the affected people must bear the appropriate consequences. But simply putting all the wealthy citizens under suspicion is just a populist opinion making.
How do you handle such accusations at your ministry?
It’s very important for me to stand on solid ground in my own area. When I hear something, for example that money planned for the Roma integration is not used in the right way, I immediately start an internal investigation and have a report done. This is the only way how other ministers and I can fight against such things in our own territory. For sure we are on the same page on this topic on the whole government level. I am very sure that something like the three-digit million huge scam related to the construction of the metro line 4 could not have happened in our government. This is not only an opinion, not a guess, this is based on hard facts, which are put on the table in black and white ever since the OLAF report was submitted.
Would you like to continue as a minister after 2018?
The engagement, which I signed up for 27 years ago, still has perspectives. Whether I or someone else will be put in this position is not my decision. That is the decision of the Prime Minister, who will hopefully remain Viktor Orbán. Concerning this ministry I will suggest a couple of changes. I would not like to name them specifically right now, since first we have to discuss them among ourselves. I do not feel any weakness of age yet, even if I look old sometimes. I still feel quite well and even able to continue leading this ministry.
The 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation
What is planned for this anniversary in Hungary?
We will have discussion with German and Hungarian top politicians among others, about how evangelic faith can inspire politics today. The Prime Minister of Saxon-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, already signed up for it. We have also invited politicians from the Netherlands and Switzerland. Furthermore, we are planning an exhibition where we will present the influences of Reformation on Hungary. By the way, the only original copy of Martin Luther’s testament can be found in Hungary. It was countersigned by Melanchthon among others and it can be seen at the Lutheran Museum. We will lend it to Wittenberg for a week. There will be a Hungarian week organised there on top of the already mentioned, where I expect a lot of Protestant discussion. I am also invited to the discussion rounds with Mr. Eppler in Leipzig. Furthermore there will be hundreds of events organised by the communities, ranging from big concerts to placing stumbling stones on the squares of Budapest and many more similar events.
So the anniversary will not only be used for historical considerations.
We would like to avoid any historicism and would like to look at the anniversary as an occasion pointing towards the future in order to think about the inspiration given by 500 years of Reformation and 2000 years of Christianity. It will be about the Christian values and the evangelic character, and also about a discussion and communication culture that we should cultivate much more. This is coming from Luther over Melanchthon and we should preserve it and pass it on. If someone is on this or that side in the question of migration, it is not because that person is dumb or evil but because he or she has his or her reasons. These reasons should be examined from a political, moral and logical point of view too. But always keeping our values in mind. I am saying this concerning both the German and the Hungarian position. The Evangelical Church could contribute a lot more than before to establish the right communication climate and offer forums for discussions. People should rather be encouraged to speak to each other and not to condemn each other. This is the danger that I see with the German Churches, because they are too deep in the water of politics. However, an important exception is the EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland) chairman, with whom I have often had fruitful conversations in a brotherly atmosphere. The Churches, similarly to the situation back at the political turn three decades ago, could be playing an important catalyst role now again – during which they could even refer to Luther.